This book can be invaluable for anyone wanting to gain insight into either the mind and heart of the Holy Father, or the direction the Catholic Church is taking as we enter the twenty-first century.
This is because it is a book of exceptional journalism – expressing not only an unusual, wide-ranging standard in terms of the sources – often exclusive – that the author Allen draws on, but also an all too rare breath of balance and fairness within its field.
For alas, so much reportage of Vatican affairs is hardly filled with such qualities, but rather bitter and biased polemic – so often from a secular, liberal tunnel-visioned media, which possesses nothing but the most superficial and stereotyped understanding of Catholicism.
And tragically, it is not only on the left that the Holy Father receives such utter miscomprehension, but even sometimes on the Catholic Right …
Where Allen strikes me as exceptional, is in his capacity to really listen to both sides of an argument – left and right – and then to do them justice in reportage with charity and thoughtfulness.
To my mind, it is a gift Allen has been developing admirably as he matures. Clearly his “home base” has been the Catholic Left – he remains a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. And his first book – nearly a decade ago – on the then Cardinal Ratzinger, reflected the biases of liberal Catholicism.
But years later, it is clear Allen´s perspective has broadened and developed. The Rise of Benedict XVI shows an author willing to revise his views, revise them as he evidently listens to and genuinely ponders the many different voices in the Catholic world.
And as one of the most well-placed Vatican reporters in the world, his access is remarkably broad-based indeed. For Allen has interviewed countless cardinals, bishops, theologians and religious leaders over the years.
The book is divided in three sections. The first gives a moving and penetrating account of the last days of Bl. John Paul II and how his astonishing funeral shook both world and church.
The second section enters into the conclave politics that eventually led to the election of the reluctant 78 year old Ratzinger – who prior to the funeral had not generally been considered a likely successor.
Ratzinger himself is reported as having compared his election to the “guillotine” – no doubt sincerely, as Allen makes clear. Which clarity is all to the good – for as an elderly man who had hoped to spend his retirement in his native Bavaria, the immense sacrifice of taking on the awesome responsibility of leading the worldwide Church until death is something rarely if ever sufficiently appreciated.
This is a book then that can serve to throw needed light on the sacrifice and burdens of the Holy Father and invite our hearts to pray for him …
This second section also serves to delve into the elector cardinals´reasons for choosing a man who had garnered long years of secularist media criticism.
Different reasons are explored including the unanticipated, nay stunning response to the death of Bl. John Paul II, which according to Allen served to convince the electing cardinals that a man of similar intellectual, moral and spiritual gravitas simply had to be found. Thus Allen reports:
Ratzinger is the sort of figure who, in any group of 115 distinguished iinternational leaders, whether businesspeople or politicians or academics, would stand out … While there are a number of other cardinals who are fine men with good academic backgrounds, solid track records as pastors and administrators and who genuinely love their people … few have quite the same gravitas as Ratzinger … From that point of view, the cardinals were deadly serious when they said they wanted to elect the best man for the job.
One cardinal said after the conclave that if Ratzinger’s election had no other effect than convincing the world to read his theology, that alone would be worth it.
“Man for man, he was superior to the lot of us,” as one cardinal put it succinctly in a post-conclave interview.
After the fact, most cardinals insisted that the “best man” factor was the primary, if not exclusive factor that had driven their votes. Other considerations, they said such as age, nationality, doctrinal poisitions, career path, gave way under a prayerful consideration of who would be the best person to lead the Church. There´s no reason to doubt this and given the foreseeable negative reaction to Benedict XVI in some quarters, powerful reason to believe that for at least some cardinals, electing him was an act of courage.
In the third and final section, Allen considers Ratzinger the man – his biography and theology and goes on to speculate on the future of his Papacy.
“Speculate on the future ” … It should be said that this is a book written very early in the Pontificate of the Holy Father. Undoubtedly it will become dated in certain respects. It should also be noted that this is self-evidently a popular approach quickly produced at the time of Benedict’s 2005 election – to meet public demand for a readily digestible text on the implications of the pontificate to come.
This I hope will not blind people to the value of this volume however. To get a deeper picture, further reading is obviously required, including that with theological depth. For to be clear, this IS a book of reportage and not theology.
Yet within its prescribed limits, it remains nevertheless notable – and can do much to redress the tragedy of the kind of journalism under which the Holy Father no doubt suffers all too gravely.
And of course, it is not only the Holy Father who suffers so, but an entire global culture blinded by media narrowness and superficiality, if not outright obscurantism and mendacity.
Allen’s sane, considered voice then, can serve not only as responsible journalism, but as an actual source of healing in the world …
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